A Painful Legacy: Christian Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust

Today marks Yom HaShoah, a solemn day in Israel dedicated to remembering and honouring the six million Jewish lives tragically lost during the Holocaust. It’s a day for deep reflection, mourning, and paying tribute to the victims of the heinous acts committed against the Jewish community.

Stepping into Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, you are immediately struck by the link between the Holocaust and Christianity. Despite the clear understanding among true Christians that anti-Semitism is utterly incompatible with true Christianity, the harsh reality remains that the Holocaust and Christian anti-Semitism are deeply intertwined. The roots of the Holocaust reach back far beyond the Nazi rise to power, nurtured by a history of hostility from Christians towards Jews. As Christians, acknowledging and grappling with the role our forefathers played in this dark chapter is crucial.

Chrysostom and the “Christ-Killers”

One of the first instances where we see Christian hostility towards Jews goes back to John Chrysostom, an influential leader in the late 4th century and the Archbishop of Constantinople. His words carried significant weight in the early Church. Through a series of sermons called “Adversus Judaeos” (Against the Jews), he labelled Jews as “Christ Killers”, sowing seeds of Antisemitism that would sadly take root and spread over many years. (Wilken, 1983)

In these sermons, Chrysostom’s language was unforgiving and bitter as he attacked Jews, saying, “The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy, rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ.”

By painting Jews as villains and blaming them for the death of Jesus, Chrysostom set the stage for the suffering and persecution of Jewish people by Christians for generations. The tragic legacy of these early teachings would reverberate throughout history, fuelling a cycle of hatred and violence that would culminate in the horrors of the Holocaust.

The Crusades: A Trail of Bloodshed and Sorrow

During the Crusades from 1095 to 1291, Christian knights embarked on a mission to take back the Holy Land from Muslim control. What might have seemed like a noble mission quickly turned into a nightmare of violence and persecution. In their zeal to reclaim the land for Christianity, these knights ended up attacking not just Muslims but also Jewish communities they came across, leaving behind a trail of destruction and heartache (Riley-Smith, 2005).

Cities like Mainz, Worms, and Cologne saw the brutal slaughter of thousands of Jews. The violence wasn’t selective; men, women, and children were all targets, all done in the name of Christ. The descriptions of these events are harrowing, with accounts of babies being torn from their mothers’ arms and dashed against walls (Chazan, 1987). It’s hard to imagine the anguish and terror experienced by these innocent victims as their lives were ended by a perverted religious zeal that saw them as the enemy.

The Spanish Inquisition: A Nightmare of Persecution and Forced Conversions

The Spanish Inquisition, from 1478 to 1834, is yet another bleak period in the history of Christian anti-Semitism. Started by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, this merciless operation went after Jews, demanding they convert to Christianity or leave the country (Kamen, 1999). Those who converted, known as “conversos”, were never really free from suspicion; they faced ongoing harassment, torture, and even execution as the Inquisition went all out to purge any lingering of their previous beliefs.

Imagine being terrified for doing something as simple as lighting Shabbat candles. That was the reality for Jewish men and women suspected of keeping their faith alive in secret. They faced horrific punishments, including being burned alive or tortured with cruel devices like the strappado and the rack (Roth, 1964). This brutal crackdown shattered countless lives, ripping families apart and inflicting deep, lasting pain all in the quest for religious conformity. The Spanish Inquisition is a chilling example of how deep the roots of hate and bias can go, leading to untold suffering when left to grow wild.

Martin Luther: A Reformer’s Descent into Anti-Semitism

Martin Luther, a key figure in the Protestant Reformation, initially showed friendliest towards Jews. Considering how the Catholic Church persecuted the Jewish people, he sought to reach out and build bridges, in the hope that they would convert to his version of Christianity. But when Jews did not respond in the warmness he expected, his openness soured into offence, deep bitterness and hostility.

In his book, “On the Jews and Their Lies”, Luther proposed a number of things he believed should be done to Jews: “First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn… Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed…” (Luther, 1543)

Further suggested measures included:

  • Confiscating Jewish prayer books and Talmudic writings
  • Forbidding rabbis to teach, under the threat of death
  • Revoking safe-conduct documents that allow Jews to travel
  • Prohibiting usury and confiscating all Jewish-owned money and property
  • Enforcing manual labour on Jews as a form of servitude
  • Expelling Jews from areas where they have not yet been banished.

Luther further wrote, “We are at fault in not slaying them.”

Thank God that the Lutheran Church later repudiated these writings, but the damage had already been done. Luther’s legacy inflicted deep wounds on Christian-Jewish relations, and laid groundwork that would tragically facilitate even more future horrors against Jews.

The Holocaust: A Culmination of Centuries of Anti-Semitism

The Holocaust, led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, marked the systematic extermination of six million Jews, a horror that’s hard to fully grasp. This tragedy wasn’t just a result of new hatred, but was fuelled by a long-standing history of Christian anti-Semitism. The Nazis used this past, even pulling from Martin Luther’s writings, to back their actions. Alfred Rosenberg, a leading thinker for the Nazis, was all too keen to link Luther’s views with the Nazi fight, or in their words, the “Aryan” struggle, against the Jews (Shirer, 1960).

Under the watchful eye of the SS and their collaborators, Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps and extermination centres, where they were subjected to unimaginable cruelty and dehumanisation. They were killed in gas chambers, their bodies destroyed in huge crematoriums (Bauer, 2001). The scale of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people during the Holocaust remains unparalleled in human history.

A Call to Repentance and Reconciliation

Many Christians today are completely unaware of these atrocities carried out in the name of Christ, and are often stunned when learning about them for the first time. They love the Jewish people because they read in the New Testament that Jesus is Jewish and the Messiah of Israel, and could not imagine how true Christians, even those whom they considered heroes of the faith, could have such hatred. What do we do with the above information then?

As Dr. Michael Brown writes brilliantly in his book “Our Hands Are Stained With Blood”, this knowledge should “drive us to our knees in repentance and intercession, and then to our feet in holy determination to break the cycle of sin and death, to fight against antisemitism wherever we find it, and to be a blessing to the Jewish people in the name of the one they still call ‘Yeshu,’ the one we call Jesus” (Brown, 1992).

As Christians, it’s crucial that we take the time to learn about these things and talk about them with each other. These sins were committed by our forefathers, but it’s up to us to make things right. True healing and reconciliation can only come through genuine repentance, not just for the sake of peace and understanding, but for the sake of the gospel.

The Future Glory of Zion

Scripture speaks about the future glory Zion (Jerusalem) in the age to come, when the Messiah returns and establishes His kingdom, ushering in blessings for every nation. Isaiah prophesied about this era, saying, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)

Ezekiel also spoke of God’s promise to restore His people: “For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:24-28)

Paul in Romans clarifies the unfolding mystery of God’s plan for Israel and the Gentiles: “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.'”

All these promises are inseparable with the gospel message: Jesus cannot return until the Jewish people welcome Him. Our mission in spreading the gospel to all nations is to ultimately stir a longing within the Jewish people for their Messiah, leading to Jesus’ return to establish justice on earth. As Paul wrote in Romans 11:11, “Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.” And as Jesus declared in Matthew 23:39, “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Understanding our tragic past is crucial for us as Christians, so that we may seek God’s healing, repentance, and reconciliation with the Jewish people. By doing this, we can contribute to the softening of Jewish hearts to the gospel and preparing for the Messiah’s return. In the face of the history of Christian anti-Semitism, we need to stand firm in the gospel’s message of hope, and pray earnestly for the healing. Only then may we truly see the hope of Zion’s promise: the triumphant return of our Messiah to establish peace and justice, bringing blessings to all nations.


  • Wilken, R. L. (1983). John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century.University of California Press.
  • Chazan, R. (1987). European Jewry and the First Crusade. University of California Press.
  • Riley-Smith, J. (2005). The Crusades: A History. Yale University Press.
  • Luther, M. (1543). On the Jews and Their Lies.
  • Brown, M. L. (1992). Our Hands Are Stained with Blood: The Tragic Story of the “Church” and the Jewish People. Destiny Image Publishers.

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